Equipping prosecutors to advance racial equity

Deberry is just one of a growing number of lead prosecutors elected by voters demanding a new approach to prosecution and criminal justice. To support this movement, Vera’s Reshaping Prosecution program is equipping reform-minded prosecutors like Deberry to use the power of their offices to address the harms of systemic racism, end mass incarceration, and promote transparency and accountability to communities.

Reshaping Prosecution is currently providing in-depth data analysis and training to seven offices to help them transform their policies, practices, and culture. These include Contra Costa County, California; Ramsey County, Minnesota; Suffolk County, Massachusetts; Wyandotte County, Kansas; and three offices that were recently added in 2020 through a competitive process: Boulder County, Colorado (District Attorney Michael Dougherty); DeKalb County, Georgia (District Attorney Sherry Boston); and Ingham County, Michigan (County Prosecutor Carol Siemon).

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In addition, our Reshaping Prosecution team launched Motion for Justice, a first-of-its-kind initiative that provides concrete action steps that prosecutors and others can take to proactively center racial equity and transform their role in the criminal legal system. Motion for Justice provides an online learning platform that outlines the role that prosecutors have historically played in racial injustice as well as practical strategies for how prosecutors can advance racial equity in the criminal legal system.

Vera is also working with three partner offices (Ingham County, Michigan; Ramsey County, Minnesota; and Suffolk County, Massachusetts) to pilot and implement the recommendations presented by Motion for Justice. And we are launching a campaign to help communities engage with their local prosecutors with the goal of persuading five to 10 prosecutors’ offices to commit to the goal of achieving a 20 percent reduction in racial disparities in case outcomes.

Ending money injustice

Across the United States, almost 500,000 people are in jail—despite not having been convicted of a crime—simply because they cannot afford to pay bail. Money injustice—through bail, fines, and fees—keeps too many people in jail for far too long, criminalizes poverty, and disproportionately harms Black people and communities of color. Those who cannot afford to pay bail are often forced to plead guilty, accept punishment, and end up with a criminal record—all without ever having a chance to establish their innocence in court. While in jail, they are at risk of losing their jobs, their homes, and their ability to support their families.

Vera is working with advocacy groups and community partners across the country to end money injustice. In 2020, we stepped up our efforts to provide data, research, and support to organizers and advocates working to eliminate the use of money bail on the county or state level, end racial disparities, and reduce the number of people behind bars.

In New Orleans, for example, Vera worked closely with local reform organizations to secure an important victory against money injustice in a city where—as Vera’s research has found—Black families pay 88 percent of the dollars extracted through money bail. Vera and our partners helped shape a city council resolution pledging to fund the city's courts without relying on user-paid fees and bail bond fees and to levy sanctions on judges who continue to impose conviction fees or set money bail. The resolution, which was adopted by the council in August 2020, is a remarkable win for New Orleans that will help keep $3.5 million annually in the pockets of system-impacted people.

The city of New Orleans does not wish to continue extracting this money out of the community and wishes families to keep every dollar possible, particularly in light of a potentially declining economy in the wake of COVID-19.
New Orleans City Council resolution to end the city’s harmful user-funded criminal legal system

In New York, in 2019, Vera helped craft and pass groundbreaking bail reform legislation that led to a 41 percent reduction in the statewide jail population in 2020. This year, we defended those historic bail reforms against a fierce and coordinated campaign of fearmongering and misinformation by opponents. We produced a series of six briefs outlining the cost savings of bail reform, highlighting the impact on local jails, and more. We provided evidence that showed that New York State achieved its statewide reductions in jail populations without a meaningful rise in crime. And we worked closely with government and community leaders to maintain political and public support for reform, despite intense pressure to reverse course. Although some rollbacks to the new bail law went into effect, we and our partners were able to protect key provisions of the reforms and the core principle that undergirds them: it is unjust when the amount of money someone possesses determines whether they are free or stuck in jail.

More recently, Vera has responded to requests from local leaders in places as diverse as California, Illinois, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Texas for our expertise and assistance in reducing or eliminating money bail. Ultimately, our goal is to build political will and public support for bail reform across the country so that ending money bail becomes synonymous with progress, equal justice for all, and public safety.

Zeroing out girls’ incarceration

Each year, there are 42,000 detentions of girls aged 10 and older, often for low-level offenses that pose no threat to public safety. More than 80 percent of girls entering the juvenile legal system are survivors of sexual violence, and more than 90 percent have experienced family violence and abuse. Incarcerating girls and gender-expansive youth is a harmful response that exacerbates trauma instead of addressing it. Girls who have been detained by the juvenile system are five times more likely to die before they reach young adulthood, including from intimate partner violence, suicide, or other trauma.

Vera's Initiative to End Girls' Incarceration is committed to reaching zero incarceration for girls and gender-expansive youth in the juvenile legal systems within the next 10 years. Since 2017, we have been working to ensure that girls and gender-expansive youth are no longer criminalized and are instead supported in their efforts to advance their own lives and freedom. We’ve proven it can be done: Since launching our work in New York City, admissions to girls’ detention centers in the city have dropped 31 percent (from 430 to 298), and incarceration of girls in long-term facilities has dropped 75 percent (52 admissions down to 13).

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We are currently partnering with five jurisdictions across the country—New York City, Santa Clara County (California), and the state governments of Hawaii, Maine, and North Dakota—to scale up this success. In each jurisdiction, we are providing in-depth technical assistance and support to bring government systems, advocates, and young people together to dismantle racist and sexist legal systems and create safe and community-based services for girls and gender-expansive youth.

In California, for example, Vera has partnered with the Young Women’s Freedom Center (YWFC) to support a locally led effort in Santa Clara County focused on reducing girls’ contact with the juvenile legal system. Since we started working in Santa Clara, the county has made a public commitment to keep girls out of the juvenile legal system. Building on our work in Santa Clara County, Vera will partner with YWFC to produce a statewide report that will, for the first time, document the numbers of system-involved women and girls in California, detailing how women and girls enter the criminal legal system and the devastating consequences of system involvement.

Centering human dignity in the culture and conditions of prisons

The design and nature of mass incarceration in America, and the culture that sustains it, are among the most profound, unyielding, and unaddressed problems in today’s American criminal legal system. We warehouse 2.3 million people in cramped, unhealthy spaces that are devoid of natural light, fresh air, healthy food, and connection to community and family. Young adults—and in particular, young men of color—bear the brunt of this unjust system. One in five men in a jail or prison is between the ages of 18 and 24; 73 percent of the young adult men in prison are young men of color.

In this age of mass incarceration and the surging momentum to end it, Vera is committed to disrupting the American prison system. With our Restoring Promise initiative, which serves incarcerated young adults, Vera is changing the conditions and culture of jails and prisons, transforming them into safe environments that center human dignity.

Our groundbreaking model prioritizes family engagement, self-expression, peer support, personal growth, education, and career readiness for young incarcerated people. In addition to providing ongoing technical assistance and support to our inaugural units in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and South Carolina, Restoring Promise began its expansion into three new states: Colorado, Idaho, and North Dakota. As the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted our plans to fully launch in these places, we quickly shifted gears to focus on securing release from prison for as many vulnerable people as possible.